25th October (Flames)

It’s dark for the earliest of my walks to the station this week, the air thick with drizzle. Redwing calls penetrate the murk, crisp against the relative hush of a suburban dawn. When I return, after dark, they’re passing overhead again. Piercing, descending, trailing off into the evening sky; their calls are a premonition of the screaming rockets that will fly similar paths over the gardens of Newbury on November 5th. If we didn’t already have a 400-year-old political justification for pyrocentric festivities at this time of year we’d have to invent one. It’s too perfect. In fact, the accelerating inferno of autumn racing around the hemisphere is surely more worthy of celebration in its own right.

In October, the whole year goes up in flames. Trees spontaneously combust, lit from within, their leaves darkening and blistering as though in a hot oven. When they finally fall they crackle underfoot, as pleasing a soundtrack as the thrushes overheard. Many plants are throwing energy into fruit, and it’s the smallest of these acidic beakfulls of sugar energy – haws, dogwood, rowan – that the redwings are here for. They’ll carry these digested embers back to Scandinavia, or Iceland: sparks to ignite the next generation of avian fireworks that will race across smoky October or November evenings in years to come.

I imagine the autumn harvest used to also sustain us in a fairly direct way. Our hedgerow plunderings are now just symbolically connected, at best, to the life-and-death foraging of birds, yet there’s something deeply sustaining about the taste of autumn fruits. They have an earthy, mineral sharpness detectable even when buried by the vats of sugar my 21st-century taste buds have grown accustomed to. The body could well live by supermarket alone, but my spirit seems to be lifted by food more directly acquired from nature. Perhaps I’m looking for a tangible connection to the redwings: their lives may objectively be much harder than ours, but in the wildness of that call I hear a freedom, born in the heat of autumn, that feels utterly out of reach.

 

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